Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Legacy of the Tip-Off Classic in Springfield lives on with showcase event

By Zachary Baru

While the Tip-Off Classic may no longer be played at the Civic Center in Springfield, this past weekend still saw Division I college basketball action return to downtown.  Although there are many differences to what once was, the legacy of the Tip-Off Classic still lives on, and in the hearts of many basketball fans in Western Massachusetts

It was once an economic driver - brining in a guaranteed sellout crowd of 7,443 to the Civic Center, the building's former fixed-seating capacity.  Hotels were full, restaurants, especially those downtown, filled with patrons staying for the Classic.  Even downtown shops too saw an uptick in customers.  This was not just a show-up and go-home event.  The Tip-Off Classic was Springfield's time of the year, along with enshrinement, to remind the world that this city is the true "birthplace of basketball".  Even a downtown parade preceded the game, a matchup that was typically on national television.  The Tip-Off Classic was traditionally the beginning of the college basketball season, bringing two top-ranked teams to the Springfield Civic Center each Thanksgiving between 1979 and 2005.

Times have changed.  The building is no longer called the Civic Center, of course, and is now called the MassMutual Center.  The venue is not even the top-drawing attraction downtown, it is the location of arena shows for MGM Springfield, downtown's new economic engine.  

But on Saturday, something felt right again.  As viewers nationwide watched on ESPNU or the ESPN App, the Basketball Hall of Fame successfully held the "Basketball Hall of Fame Classic", an ode to the Tip-Off Classic, and a showcase featuring four Division I schools.  Nationally ranked and coming off a Final Four appearance, Florida Atlantic faced St. Bonaventure at 4 p.m., and UMass faced West Virginia during the nightcap at 6:30.  Both games were on ESPNU, and attracted a combined crowd of 7,009, just shy of the MassMutual Center's 7,300 seat capacity for basketball.  Those numbers, however, are a combined crowd.  The official attendances were separated by game, and were 4,264 for UMass-West Virginia, and 2,745 for FAU-St. Bonaventure.

Those attendances may sound smaller than expected, but they aren't so bad when looked at as a whole event in a 7,000-seat arena, nearly combining for the venue's capacity.  Also, this event served it's purpose, it recognized the Tip-Off Classic's history, and brought this to a national television audience.  And to do so on an ESPN network, this is a success in itself.  The Hall of Fame Classic also helped UMass with a crowd of over 4,000 during the winter break, which can be difficult some years on campus with many students at home visiting their families.  

With such a rich local history, having this event in Springfield is still very important to basketball fans, and the local economy itself.  Although the allure of the Tip-Off Classic is not the same, and the tournament has moved down to Uncasville at the Mohegan Sun Arena, having college basketball in Downtown Springfield is still important, and this past weekend's "Classic" was a reminder of all that rich history of college basketball in the birthplace of the game.

Zach Baru can be followed @zbaru and reached at  Zach also writes and

Saturday, August 12, 2023

NECBL fills an important role within Western Mass. and all of New England

 By Zachary Baru

As the Valley Blue Sox were eliminated last week by the Bristol Blues, for baseball fans it is important to keep in mind the significant role Holyoke's team and the summer collegiate league play in our region.  Locally, baseball has roots in Holyoke.  Going back to 1903, the Holyoke Paperweights played in the Connecticut League until 1911.  But most prominently, the Holyoke Millers brought minor league professional baseball to Mackenzie Stadium in 1977.  The Millers played in the Eastern League, which today you will find just down I-91 in Hartford, as the Hartford Yard Goats are the closest team to Western Mass. to represent the Eastern League in AA Minor League Baseball.

Joe Wolfe Field in North Adams.
The Millers put Holyoke on the map as a baseball city, in a way, but left in 1982.  You'd have to go all the way to 2004 to see baseball return to Holyoke, but this time not necessarily minor league by definition.  In 2004 the Holyoke Giants of the New England Colligate Baseball League returned baseball to Mackenzie Stadium.  Since the NECBL is a league for college players to develop skills in the summer, it is not minor league baseball in the traditional sense.  Their teams are not affiliated with specific Major League Baseball teams.  The Giants left Holyoke in 2007 and the Holyoke Blue Sox came to replace them in the NECBL, where they play to this day.  The Blue Sox were renamed the Valley Blue Sox in 2014, representing the Pioneer Valley in the NECBL.  And this is where the important role of the league comes into play here in Western Mass.

Without the NECBL, two cities with rich baseball histories would not have any games played in their stadiums.  These two cities are Holyoke and also North Adams, which for anyone who has not made the trip up to Berkshire County to catch a game, is simply an incredible setting for baseball.  Set with the backdrop of the mountains, Joe Wolfe Field is packed every year for the annual Fourth of July game, with postgame fireworks launched right in front of the mountains of North Adams in Berkshire County.  It's moments like this, when you look around and see nearly an entire small New England town together, that you realize the special place NECBL baseball has in our region.

In Holyoke, where Mackenzie Field was built in 1933, the team has hosted the NECBL Championship, and the NECBL All-Star Game, of which the 2009 game drew a then league record crowd of 4,906 fans to Mackenzie Stadium.  Nearly 5,000 people in Holyoke, many of which contributed to the city's economy in some way at local restaurants, bars, stores and hotels.  This is what the NECBL can do for cities across New England who otherwise might be forgotten about by today's larger Minor League Baseball organization.  And make no mistake about it, the Minor League Baseball of today is not just a level of play, it is a true organization owned and operated by the MLB, with a newly consolidated structure that has left smaller New England cities even further from ever obtaining a true minor league franchise.

What is left?  Nothing at all to be ashamed of, the NECBL is more or less flourishing in New England.  Not only are Holyoke and North Adams great stops in the league for fans, but the Newport Gulls play in a beautiful/historical Cardines Field.  As if Newport is not a great enough New England city for a road trip, the NECBL also has interesting places to watch baseball in Mystic and yes, even Martha's Vineyard.  Perhaps the only baseball league requiring teams to ferry to games, but don't quote me on that one.  

Western Mass. might not have the glitzy stadiums like Hartford's Dunkin' Park, or Worcester's Polar Park, but we still have something special that other places around the country cannot all say they have.  A great regional baseball league that allows fans to get extremely close to the action, at a very affordable price, and one that brings the town together in a way only a league in New England can accomplish.

Zach Baru can be followed @zbaru and reached at  Zach also writes and

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Thunderbirds off to a top 10 start in league attendance

By Zachary Baru

It's been a wild year for the Springfield Thunderbirds.  The franchise had a playoff run for the ages, making it all the way to the Calder Cup Finals, before losing to the Chicago Wolves at home back in June of 2022.

Sold out crowds during the playoffs, tickets selling out well before the game and only available on secondary markets, a loud MassMutual Center, a taste of the past when the former Civic Center was home to two Calder Cup champion teams in both 1990 and 1991.  But that was the Springfield Indians, and fast-forward to 2022, and two AHL franchises later, the Springfield Thunderbirds have brought some of that nostalgia magic back, at least off-the-ice that is.

While the team is currently 7-8-0-4 and 7th place in the Atlantic Division out of eight teams, the Thunderbirds are still a top ten team at the box office.  And AHL fans know, in minor league sports, being top ten in attendance is a very, very important stat.  According to, the Thunderbirds are currently averaging 5,871 fans per home game, good enough for 10th out of 32 teams in the AHL.  The Cleveland Monsters lead the league in attendance, averaging 8,726 fans per game.  

Today's AHL is a lot different than the league of the past, as many teams are playing in large markets, three of which are playing in NBA or NHL arenas (Cleveland, Calgary and Manitoba).  The Thunderbirds are ahead of three large market franchises such as Milwaukee, Toronto and San Jose.  Not to mention other larger markets with NHL teams such as Calgary and Manitoba, both of which are behind Springfield in attendance.  

So how does this all pan out?  For a relatively small market of Western Massachusetts, in a city that has a population of 155,929 according to the 2020 U.S. Census, the Thunderbirds are doing pretty good when it comes to the gate.  We are not a city that shares an NHL or NBA team like others in the AHL do, we are not a top 30 media market like other teams are, we are simply Western Mass.  But we are not just a smaller media market, we are one that loves hockey, and has an extremely rich tradition of both great hockey teams and great success.  

It's no surprise that the success of the 2021-22 Thunderbirds has lead to large crowds this season, but a level of appreciation should also go to the Thunderbirds' front office, as their marketing plays a very large role in all of this success off the ice.  As the season continues, hopefully the big crowds will as well, keeping Springfield on the map as a true hockey town.

Zach Baru can be followed @zbaru and reached at  Zach also writes and

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

How the lack of local sports media hurts the brand

By Zachary Baru

One of the biggest assets of our small region here in Western Massachusetts is the fact that this little area actually does in fact have a great deal of media entities.  While the number of local news stations, radio stations (both public and private radio) websites and local papers that focus on one or more towns is arguably a lot greater than the size of the market, the amount of full news coverage has declined in recent years.  Papers have become smaller, news stations have merged but remain on separate channels at separate times, and websites are increasingly asking for subscriptions to see full content.  So where does all of this leave sports?

Sports in Western Mass.

One of my greatest memories of my childhood in Western Mass. was following sports here in the region.  I always enjoyed reading Garry Brown in the Union News, Sunday Republican, and now The Republican.  I enjoyed watching Scott Coen on News 40 and both WWLP's and News 40's high school sports coverage - for not just football, but all sports.  I enjoyed reading The Republican's stories about local sports but also their two full pages of scores, calendars and box scores.  I could see everything going on in the sports world with just one glimpse.  While some of this remains the same, a lot has changed.  Not just locally, but nationwide.  We are seeing a trend of sports departments getting smaller and smaller in both papers and news stations.  Many local news stations throughout the country, including here in Western Mass., do not have a sports department anymore, and show sports stories from time to time.  This begs the question, how does this hurt the brand?

Sports media is essential for local sports teams.  We are fortunate to have eight local sports teams at either the professional, semi-professional, or amateur/collegiate development level.  These are the Springfield Thunderbirds, Western Mass. Pioneers, New England Mutiny, Western Mass. Zombies, Holyoke Blue Sox, Pittsfield Suns, North Adams SteepleCats and Westfield Starfires.  Fortunately for some of these teams, they do still receive good coverage from local media.  The Thunderbirds and Blue Sox enjoy decent coverage, but even both of these franchises do not get the complete coverage across all mediums they once had.

Present-Day Coverage

Coverage for the Pioneers is not what is has been in the past, and even the Mutiny, who now have become a staple in Western Mass. having formed in 1999 as the Springfield Sirens, receive limited coverage.  It is understandable that Berkshire County teams such as the Suns and SteepleCats will not get coverage in Springfield, but what kind of local television coverage can these teams get?  Especially when many people who live in Berkshire County only receive local channels from the Albany market.  These teams rely on all forms of coverage, from print, to digital, to television, to radio.

Fortunately WAMC, Albany Public Radio and local NPR affiliate, does in fact cover Berkshire County.  But the fact remains that local sports coverage in the media just is not what is once was.  And while nothing can ever stay the same, especially with the emerging media and technology landscape, the brand of local sports has been hurt over the last decade.  

The Effect on Local Sports

Less media coverage to local teams hurts franchises' marketing, sales, and overall awareness.  In today's economy, between prices and competition within the entertainment industry, it is hard enough to get people to come and watch a game in person.  Local teams do not have the luxury that major league teams have when it comes to television contracts.  Local sports depend on in-person attendance.  To anyone that says "no one reads the paper", or "no one is watching local news on TV anymore", I simply say that is wrong.  People are still reading papers and watching news, just sometimes on different platforms.  I would argue that news and media is consumed more today than it has ever been, especially with new digital platforms for it to be delivered.

Whether it is a newspaper, a digital version on a desktop or phone, television, a streaming platform with local news, YouTube, radio or a podcast, people are consuming media just as much as ever, but in more ways than ever before.  Media is still extremely relevant, and local sports teams know this.  They depend on the local media to get the word out about their team.  And while the responsibility still lies with the team to market itself, a lack of sports coverage truly hurts the brand for the local teams we love.

Zach Baru can be followed @zbaru and reached at 

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Hockey makes a comeback in Springfield with back-to-back big nights in October

By Zachary Baru

The City of Springfield waited for an entire season without AHL hockey, and on October 15th and 16th, hockey returns to the region with fans in dramatic fashion.  

The American Hockey League's return to Springfield comes one day after American International College faces local rival and national champion, the University of Massachusetts.  Any UMass appearance in Springfield would be a big game, as the team has previously played games at the formerly-named Springfield Civic Center.  

In the renovated MassMutual Center, the venue is now home to the city's NCAA Division I hockey team, American International.  The MassMutual Center has served as AIC's home ice since the 2016-17 season, after the team switched home venues from Olympia Ice Center in West Springfield, Massachusetts.  UMass, coming off a 2021 NCAA Frozen Four championship, has heated up an already interesting rivalry between the two D1 schools who are just 23 miles apart.  

The very next evening marks the return of AHL hockey to a city with a storied history in the league.  AHL hockey began in the city in 1926, when the Springfield Indians began playing at the Eastern States Coliseum in West Springfield.  The Indians became the Kings during the franchise's affiliation with Los Angeles, became the Indians again, and moved to Worcester in 1994.  Fortunately that same year a group was established by Bruce Landon, a long-time Indians great and General Manager of the franchise after his playing career.  The Springfield Falcons were born, moved to Tucson in 2016, but once again Landon was able to save the city's AHL franchise and helped put together a new ownership group with Majority Owner Paul Picknelly.  The Thunderbirds were established, and although COVID-19 cancelled their 2020-21 season, the franchise returns in October 2021 for a new season at full capacity.  

There are many reasons for hockey fans in Springfield to celebrate with a big October weekend of hockey.  Hockey is back in Springfield at both the pro and Division I levels, not only serving hockey fans, but providing a much-needed boost to the local economy.  As the fans return to downtown Springfield, restaurants, shops and hotels will all see increased business, one of the many positive impacts the city will see as hockey fully returns.

Zach Baru can be followed @zbaru and reached at 

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Thunderbirds set to return to the ice for 2021-22 season

By Zachary Baru

The Springfield Thunderbirds of the American Hockey League announced last week they will return to the ice to play in the 2021-22 season this fall.  

The target start date will be October 16, and the team is hoping to be able to allow full capacity at the home games this season according to Nate Costa, President of the Thunderbirds.  Built in 1972 and renovated in 2005, the MassMutual Center, the Thunderbirds' home venue, seats 6,663 fans for hockey games.

The news comes with great relief to local businesses in the downtown area who have been suffering throughout the entire pandemic, but also hit even harder by the loss of 38 hockey events that bring fans into restaurants, bars, hotels and shops in Downtown Springfield.  

Local businesses - the ones that are fortunate to remain - are hoping to pick up where they left off before the pandemic, typically welcoming patrons before and after Thunderbirds games.  Away teams, coaches, staff, and media support local hotels, along with occasional fans traveling for away games.  The restaurant and bar scene in Downtown Springfield were arguably impacted the most, as many downtown establishments see a noticeable difference between nights when there are Thunderbirds home games and nights when the team does not play.  

Aside from the local business owners at these restaurants and stores, all staff including servers, bartenders, bar-backs, managers and cooks have lost a tremendous amount of tips and hours without downtown events brining in customers on a weekly basis.  

As the country continues to become vaccinated, and life slowly moves closer to normal, the local economy in Springfield will soon get a much needed shot of life pumped into the downtown.  As the Thunderbirds are set to play a key role in Downtown Springfield's revival, the relief for all employees at local businesses cannot come soon enough.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Basketball Hall of Fame to hold enshrinement at Mohegan Sun Arena, continuing partnership with resort

By Zachary Baru

The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame will be holding their enshrinement at the Mohegan Sun Arena, marking the first year the museum will hold the ceremony at the resort casino in Uncasville, Connecticut.

The Enshrinement Weekend, taking place May 14-15, 2021, will continue a partnership the Hall of Fame has had for many years with Mohegan Sun.  This year, however, the Hall of Fame will hold their enshrinement in the 10,000-seat Mohegan Sun Arena, an arena that has has 9,323 fixed seats and expandable to 10,000 for concerts.  The arena has won numerous awards, most recently winning Casino of the Year award for venues at the Academy of Country Music Awards in 2019.  This is the seventh time in 12 years the Mohegan Sun Arena has won the award at the ACMs.

Aside from being an intimate yet rather large arena, and a modern venue, holding this year's enshrinement at the resort casino also allows the other events of the weekend to all be held on the same property.  Whether this is COVID-related has not been mentioned, but it does add to the case of making the Mohegan Sun property a good choice to host the weekend event.  

The weekend events begin on Friday, May 14 with media availability at 2:00 p.m.  Later that afternoon at 5:00 a Tip-Off Celebration and Awards Gala will be held.  The following day on Saturday, May 15 there will be a VIP Reception at 2:00 p.m., followed by the 2021 Enshrinement Ceremony at 5:00 p.m. at the Mohegan Sun Arena.

With two luxury hotels, 50 restaurants, bars and eating options, and two separate convention and exposition centers all connected on the same property, Mohegan Sun allows the Hall of Fame to host the entire weekend event inside the resort casino.  The ability to have all of the weekend events within walking distance and inside the same resort is an interesting concept, one that makes for a good case to hold the event outside of Springfield, the location of the Hall of Fame.  While this plan will undoubtedly see some criticism from the Springfield-area, during a global pandemic, there is a level of safety that this provides.  

This year's enshrinement will be yet another example of a long-time partnership between the Basketball Hall of Fame and Mohegan Sun.  The resort casino and its arena have hosted numerous tournaments and one-day showcases for both men's and women's college basketball.  The Mohegan Sun Arena hosts the annual Tip-Off Tournament, and Mohegan Sun is a key sponsor of the museum in Springfield.  Having the enshrinement at the resort casino will continue to strengthen this partnership, while offering a location that can conveniently host all weekend events all in one property.